Posted on: March 16th, 2022

Perfectionism: The Unachievable Goal

BY: Dr. Ashley Michalski

Perfectionism can be defined as the need or the desire to appear perfect, or simply believing that perfection is achievable. Sure, the concept of perfectionism can be used as a motivator; a characteristic that may lead to success, but like most things in life, hyper focusing or taking extreme measures to achieve perfection can be detrimental to your overall wellbeing and your level of success. I’m not saying that trying your best is harmful, rather reaching and striving for an unachievable standard can be damaging. Why? Because it is impossible – it’s literally in the definition:

 /pərˈfekt/ Perfect (verb): to make (something) completely free from faults or defects (Oxford University Press, 2022)

Perfectionism can include a series of self-defeating thoughts. Self-defeating thoughts can lead to negative emotions. Negative emotions can lead to unhealthy behaviors. This cycle is all to reach an unrealistic goal.

Perfectionism like many human traits can be seen on a spectrum. For some, too little concern for striving for doing “good enough” can lead to under performance, while others striving for perfection will inevitably fall short of their goal and cause distress in their pursuing of the unattainable goal.

Additionally, some people may be overly perfectionistic in some aspects of their life and not in others causing a hyper focus on certain tasks that can impede their ability to have a balanced approach to achieving their goals in life. There are, without a doubt, benefits to perfectionism, but when it goes too far or is out of your control, that is when it needs to be curbed. If you’re wondering if you might be too perfectionistic, you probably are, or would at least benefit from finding ways to better manage your perfectionistic tendencies.

Perfectionism can present itself in many ways and negatively affect various aspects of life:

  1. School or work: Tasks can be left incomplete if someone is putting an unrealistic standard on the work. Procrastination is possible because someone does not want to fail.
  2. Interpersonal relationships: There can be unrealistic standards you place on yourself or other people in your life, which can cause a strain on the relationships.
  3. Sports: Athletes are under pressure from themselves, parents, coaches, teammates, and fans. They may expect or be expected to always perform flawlessly. Errors or mistakes are not allowed.
  4. Physical Appearance: Someone may spend excessive time choosing what to wear or excessive time getting ready before going out. Sometimes perfectionism can lead to cancellation of plans because the goal of perfection was never met.

Perfectionism can be caused by a variety of reasons, such as fear of failure, inadequacies or insecurities, an insecure attachment, modeled behaviors of perfectionism, etc.

So, let’s explore this in real life. Here is a quick glimpse into my head (brace yourself…it can be scary – don’t worry I’ll give you the safe for work version). As I write this article, here are some of my thoughts:

  • Is anyone going to actually read this? (Besides those I force into giving feedback)
  • What if I say something wrong?
  • What if I have a typo?
  • What if no one likes this article?
  • What if someone doesn’t like me because I wrote this article?

These thoughts are currently leading to anxiety, worry, and fear. Ultimately, this will lead to me asking several colleagues, friends, and family to read this before I post it (seeking unhealthy reassurance), which is arguably better than the alternative of letting my own anxiety about this spin out of control. It is also possible this will never see the internet because of the vicious cycle of perfectionism (but if you are reading this – I overcame my thoughts – woo!).

This is a great example of a, sometimes, unrecognized consequence of perfectionism. Often perfectionism, isn’t that person who does everything right, rather it’s the individual who leaves tasks or quits on things leaving things incomplete, as the perfectionism may cause them to give up entirely on something. Alternatively, if you are able to persevere, you may spend way too much time on them (I won’t tell you how long I’ve spent on this). Before even starting, in my mind, I created a goal to write a perfect article, one that everyone will enjoy reading – a goal that was impossible from the start. In this case, the battle is the internal pressure to make something flawless.

Okay, so now what? I identified the thoughts, do I hit save on this word document, or just give up because this will never be good enough? Do I risk someone reading this and saying it’s bad because then that means “I’m a failure”? Well, for the purpose of this article and hoping this will benefit someone, I’m going to try and do what I would tell a client:

Challenge and reframe the thoughts:

  • Does is matter who reads this as long as I feel good about sharing my thoughts?
  • People say the wrong thing. Any feedback can help me grow or learn. 
  • Typos – it won’t be my first and it definitely will not be my last.
  • I only need one person to feel connected to this article and benefit from it.
  • If someone doesn’t like me because of this article, I can’t control that.

What does this mean for you?

If you related at all, while reading this article, the first thing to do is examine your thoughts. Ask yourself if you are setting realistic goals for yourself.  The next thing to do is read the sequel, which will also be an imperfect, good enough article about some tips on how to overcome perfectionism that will hopefully come out soon and not something that is procrastinated. Here’s a little teaser, perfection is innately imperfect as it requires undue effort to reach an unattainable goal and more importantly prevents you from working towards other good enough tasks.